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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Weigh in on Waiting for Superman

Weigh in on Waiting for Superman

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Yesterday, on Oprah's Show, she hosted a discussion about the "crisis in American education" with Waiting for Superman filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates.

Alas I was not able to see this, but I poked around Oprah's site and found a very sensationalized trailer, as well as an excerpt where Rhee defends her practice of laying off teachers who are not "showing results."

I also watched the Twittersphere erupt with comments about Waiting for Superman, as they were listening to Oprah's show. Clearly, the show was whipping people into a panic. Check out how many people are saying "You must see this movie!" in their tweets. Great PR, but is it really helping the discussion?

I'm interested in hearing how educators feel about this issue. Have you seen Waiting for Superman? Did you see the Oprah episode? What do you make of the media frenzy surrounding these issues?

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Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Bob!

I am a parent as well, of two boys, a high school junior and an eighth grader. I've had IEP's and gifted IEP's for my kids over the years as well, and sit on the tech committee for our school district.
In watching education, I've noticed that we are spending a lot of time collecting data in terms of test scores, but not using those scores as diagnostic of a particular child's individual needs- they tend to be used as an "over/under" only, and test scores in aggregate are used to make broad assumptions about whether or not kids are learning, and whether our schools are "doing their jobs" or not.
I think school is about much more that test scores. It should be about learning to learn. Curiosity. Seeing something through from beginning to end. Projects. Overlapping what you learn in math with what you learning history, science, and language arts. Taking a whole student approach, and helping students improve in areas where they struggle, by treating them as much as possible as people and individuals, and not widgets on an assembly line. But much of the education today has been constructed to turn out factory workers rather than encourage creativity and critical thinking. There's a lot of recognizing the right answer in a multiple choice test rather than knowing the answer or being able to defend your view and opinion of what's right or wrong.
I have high hopes for my kids. I often feel that I spend more time outside of school nurturing their interests and creativity than school does, where context and bigger pictures seem to get ignored and subject matter can be siloed in departments, and little connection is made between what's going on in Chemistry and what's going on in Math or History.
yet it's this sort of semantic learning that is most useful, and most engaging. The question is how to make these sort of experiences more common place for kids, and not something that happens only at enrichment camps or enrichment classes for the brightest of students.

Bob Charles's picture
Bob Charles
I am in search of definitions for "Quality Eduction" and "Great School".

Hi Whitney. Here are my thoughts. I have a lot of questions that I will put into new topics:

learning to learn. The best learning to learn and critical thinking text I have seen is The Thinking Game, "A Guide to Effective Study" - Eugene Meehan http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Game-Effective-Chatham-Political/dp/09345... It is quite dated (1988) like my self. But, I am sure these ideas are re-written in some modern text. It provides "the essential requirements for systematic criticism and improvement of knowledge and its uses or applications." Political scientists and Economist should be the ones we look to for critical thinking and theory of knowledge. I do not think people understand the meaning of "critical thinking". It is not just thinking .. it is a particular type of thinking. Well, I will start a topic on it someday.

Seeing something through from beginning to end. Projects Wow! Painful :) I, my kids and everyone I know puts things off until the last moment. Of course there are exceptions .. I work for them. This is so important. I still only get things 90% completed. 10% of the effort on the first 90% of the project and 90% effort on the last 10.% of the project. It is about self discipline. If that could be taught, kids could help teach themselves.

Overlapping what you learn in math with what you learning history, science, and language arts. Maybe I think about this a little different. I think it is possible to study music and the arts while reinforcing what is being learned in other subjects. For example: Every teacher should be concerned about quality writing as much as the English teacher. Math is used in the Arts and when there are opportunities the Art teacher should be in line with what the math teacher is doing. K5 teachers do it naturally. Of course, all this seems to little inflexible in MS and HS. But, I bet it could be done to some degree.

Taking a whole student approach As a parent this is a red flag. If this is not well defined, it can be used for anything. I would be more comfortable with the coaching model. A Coach has specific purposes for everything they do with a student. They are concerned about everything the student can do to fulfill that purpose. The coach uses what the student provides to the best outcome. They have a way to test true progress. "Whole Student Approach" idea is too broad. It can delve into every aspect of the student's life, including spiritual matters and cultural issues. It can force the teacher to look for suspected behaviors and traits and even artifacts that seem "un-normal". I am not sure I want to put that responsibility on my kids' teachers. Focusing on normality of behavior is counter-productive to treating students as individuals or "whole persons." This is a difficult idea, conceptually, for me.

helping students improve in areas where they struggle, by treating them as much as possible as people and individuals, and not widgets on an assembly line. Is it possible to do this in the current education model? With all students? Not so far. Every student would struggle if they tried to preform at their personal capacity. But when we measure against some general normality, kids outside of that are "special". If measured against their own capability, normal isn't a sigma. Individuality takes a tremendous amount of effort if applied to every student. It sure works well with Title 1 reading programs. I know this first hand. Our son was at 1.5 in 2nd grade and after 6 month of Special reading he was over 3.1 . He is high school now and is gifted in language arts.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

...another battle cry which will only stand in the way of our continued progress toward schools that work for every child...

Meanwhile our opportunities to work together to promote real progress are shunted aside by blameful rhetoric. We teach even our youngest students to solve a problem by working together with all those involved. They know how to create a plan for the future, and it doesn't start with laying blame. That only poisons the process.

We know that teachers need to be involved in creating solutions for the future of our profession, and demonizing teachers, or casting them all in the same light will only prevent them from engaging in the reform process. Without their engagement, ANY REFORM EFFORT IS DOOMED!

Unfortunately, many teachers are not prepared to work in the schools we need, because they have given all their energies to coping with the schools we have. Fortunately, training is available, and making the transition to inquiry based individualized instruction is prefectly doable for any dedicated educator. We teachers won't be able to solve this problem alone, but we can contribute to the growing movement toward fundamental change by educating ourselves about neuroscience, updated instructional techniques (PBL, SEL, etc.), and the progress of reform throughout the country.


Bob Charles's picture
Bob Charles
I am in search of definitions for "Quality Eduction" and "Great School".

Mary Kate Land:

As a parent, I am sure a lot of parents appreciate your effort! They just do not know how to say it. The WsF, NAEE, NCLB, State Proficiency Report Cards, union haters, et all, measure success against a whole population meeting a low bar. If success were measured by how well a student was individually succeeding in meeting their capabilities, teachers and the low rated (usually poor) schools would be vindicated. And the higher performing schools (usually wealthy) would all-of-a-sudden see their short-comings. (I know there are exceptions ... I found a few)

It drives me crazy! I looked at data from all 611 Ohio school districts. I wanted to see what the State considered measures of success. What they used had correlations near ZERO to coresponding data. So, they were not even close to being causal (a relationship).

"differentiated learning" "inquiry based individualized instruction" seem to take into account an individual's capacity to learn. Are your ideas concerned with a students success measured against their person capability? Please tell me more!

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

...only makes sense if it is also individualized. This can be accomplished in an ungraded system. Comparing students to one another, or even to some predetermined standard, does not allow us to adequately assess their progress toward educational goals (which also ought to be individualized).

Non-graded portfolio type assessments do not yield numerical data (one reason government run schools don't like them). Instead they give anyone who has the time to look carefully at them a much more thorough understanding of the child's progress.

When a public school district in my area tried to get away from graded progress reporting, the parents raised such a stink they scrapped the program and went back to grades. Seems the parents didn't want a detailed understanding of their child's experience, preferring a simple letter grade which allows easy comparison with the letters of others. sad.

As a parent, I decided to leave institutionalized schooling behind and take the adventure of early education with my children. By homeschooling, we were able to meet the immediate educational needs of our students without supporting a system we know is broken. Our experiences helped me to better understand the beauty of unforced learning and allowed my children to develop very strong critical thinking skills.

As a private school teacher, I currently pursue alternative learning practices which allow each of my students to develop in his/her own way. Without government oversight, I am free to implement those practices (including PBL, non-traditional assessment, SEL, etc.) which our research has shown cultivate independent inquiry among students.

I have a great deal of respect for teachers who are willing to continue working toward reform while serving in our public schools. But leaving that institution behind in order to best serve the needs of students is an alternative to the frustration of more failed attempts at reform. Don't consider it a cop out. The techniques which are being advocated in this new view of learning have been pioneered by homeschoolers and private schoolers. These are necessary steps on the road which (I fervently hope) will someday lead to great schools for ecery child!


Bob Charles's picture
Bob Charles
I am in search of definitions for "Quality Eduction" and "Great School".

Mary Kate Land:

Montessouri methods are wonderful. I suspect, only a small subset of parents are comfortable with them. But, most all of them could be if they understood. Inherent to the public school model is the requirement to take whoever they are given and process them all the same. Because that is the most "efficeient" and cost effective way. Reform efforts over the last 50 years show how difficult it is to break out of that mode of operation. Not to mention the fact that all 100,000 schools in the US seem to move together. Like dragging a Empire State building through the desert.

Do you use both individual and team projects?

Are learning objectives the same for every student? Assuming their project topic may be different.

Are your assessments of the learning objectives tied to the individual student's capacity to acheive them?

How do you assess an individual students capacity in various areas?

When a student reaches high school and they are interested in college, do objectives focus more on ACT and SAT content?

When a student reaches high school and they are interested in going into trades (no college), do objectives focus more on the trade skills and knowledge required for there future sucess?

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

"Do you use both individual and team projects?"

Yes. Both of those working modes are important for students to explore so that they begin to understand how to motivate and coordinate themselves and others.

"Are learning objectives the same for every student?"

No. I think of students as falling within certain ranges of operational independence, as well as certain levels of operation. I have students who conceptualize at a very high level, but operate well below normed expectations for their age group. Our system does not impede intellectual development while learning style issuees are still being assessed/addressed. I have very independent students who conceptualize at less advanced levels, but are organized to the point where they can consistently make independent progress. Whereas some of the most conceptually advanced students cannot move ahead without significant support, because their organizational skills are not there yet.

If my classroom were organized to make it most efficient for me, student time would not be as well spent. We have to face the fact that the schools that work best for students are not those that streamline adult tasks efficiently. Until we get away from the idea that it is OK to compromise the richness of the learning environment/experience in order to allow schools to operate in the most efficient and cost effective way for administrators, we will never have the reform that will set students free to learn.

The reform students need is built around designs which optimize the way brains learn. It won't be easier for adults, or allow the employment of fewer people in the process. My room is operating very well with 16 students and 2 teachers. We are lucky to be able to maintain the recommended ratio from "A Nation at Risk" (1980). The government which published that research has NEVER followed the recommendations which have proved to be so fundamental for us.

"Assuming their project topic may be different."

Yes, self chosen to the greatest degree possible.

"Are your assessments of the learning objectives tied to the individual student's capacity to acheive them?"


"How do you assess an individual students capacity in various areas?"

Our students are continually performing tasks, some of which create work products and others which generate self-report data. Monitoring this stream, as well as observing students while they perform their tasks, and as they participate in small learning groups, gives us the info we need to assess learniing progress. Our reports are based on operational level. We report on each learning objective individually and indicate whether the student is working at an introductory, independent, or mastery level. That's all.

"When a student reaches high school and they are interested in college, do objectives focus more on ACT and SAT content?"

Montessori objectives are not generally based on specific content associated with standardized tests. However I do take into account what is being assessed in order to better prepare my students for their middle school/high school experience. We don't have any Montessori middle/high schools in my area. I know of one boarding school back east, but all my students move into public or private (usually religious) middle schools. My test prep consists of s short course in how to answer when you don't know the answer, and how to read test questions. This is embedded in a review of "test like" tasks since these are not a regular part of the curriculum. We don't advertise test scores at my school, but they are generally much higher than the surrounding school districts.

"When a student reaches high school and they are interested in going into trades (no college), do objectives focus more on the trade skills and knowledge required for there future sucess?"

Montessori middle/high schools are often organized around a concept known as erdkinder which encompasses the final period of human development from adolescence through age 25. These schools are meant to be project based and students grow into greater and greater degrees of independence. The focus of the curriculum is preparation for the world of work and so the curriculum encourages mentoring and apprenticeship. Many schools run their own businesses. Students are involved at every level of organization and participate in administration, construction, and staffing. It's designed to be a great preparation for all sorts of endeavors.


Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

I want to address the widely held misconception that the success of private schools is achieved through a screening process.

My school is a business. In order for the business to run effectively we have to have customers. We never turn anyone away, and I have only ever seen one student (in 7 years) whose needs could not be accommodated adequately within our classrooms.

I have had classes wherein more than half of my students had significant learning challenges to the point where they would have had IEPs had they chosen public schooling. Though many of our parents are indeed very committed to Montessori ideals, and their students flourish in our system and move on to distinction elsewhere, many others are not, and may not even really understand Montessori ideals at all. These are parents who have tried to make the public school situation work for their kids, but have found that the system (for a very wide variety of reasons) would not support their learning adequately. Though these students do less well than those who have been exposed to our curriculum from the earliest ages, they often develop to the point where they also distinguish themselves in their subsequent placements (often back into a public school).

We don't screen out students who are hard to serve. We serve students of great need. The magic of our success isn't really magical or hard to understand, either. Because it is based on the science of learning, it continues to evolve to reflect the best practices supported by the strongest research findings in neuroscience and psychology (the disciplines within science which study learning).

If we want reform to move forward, we must accept that these sciences have something to say about the ways in which education ought to be organized. Indeed, that is one of the founding precepts of the Edutopia endeavor: science can inform education.


Bob Charles's picture
Bob Charles
I am in search of definitions for "Quality Eduction" and "Great School".

Mary Kate Land,

Thank you very much for taking the time to explain what is happening in Montessori. I hope you have time for another question. Its a difficult one.

One thing the public schools are forced to deal with is the unruly student. They have no choice. Classes get disrupted, bullies hurt other kids, people get frustrated, on and on. The school has to put up with this knowing that many parents won't/can't help and the school have limited resource to help.

How does Montessori deal with unruly students?

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Some Montessori schools are not open to taking students who enter at older ages for precisely this reason. My school accepts refugees. Students who are disruptive are dealt with in the same way other students who have learning challenges are dealt with.

We look for the motivation behind the behavior while setting a limit to maintain the environment. This may include excluding a child from the classroom, or from participation, until they can demonstrate a willingness to make progress toward their goals. Meanwhile, we work to meet the need that is triggering the behavior in a way that works for our environment.

Sometimes we cannot directly address the need behind the behavior (it might be mutritional or related to stability challenges in the home or something). In such a case we try to act as a refuge for the child, a safe predictable place. The kids are all willing to do what is necessary in order to be part of the classroom cuz our classrooms are fun!

My toughest kid once challenged my authority on the top of a cliff during the midpoint of a hike, as night was falling. We were accompanied by a 20ish sized group of 9-12 year olds, many of whom had never hiked before. He had crossed a line that endangered the other children and I stood physically in his way and told him we weren't going on until we had a talk. We didn't get up from that talk until he was ready to continue safely.

I once heard a student reassuring a classmate who was worried about being "in trouble." She said, "Don't worry, all they're gonna do is talk to you!" Benign as that sounds, it solves 99.99% of behavior challenges.

Sometimes we do get parents involved. We create a monitoring chart particular to the child's needs and share daily feedback about the child's progress toward the goals on his/her chart.

Because of our generous student/staff ratio, we can take the time for individualized interaction and monitoring.


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